O n Friday 4 October, Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings specialist Chloe Stead will be joined in conversation by interior designer Sophie Ashby and collector Stephan Wrobel on a barge trip from Frieze Masters to Tom Dixon’s The Coal Office, where highlights from Sotheby’s Old Masters will be on view. Ahead of that conversation, Alice Casely-Hayford caught up with Sophie Ashby to discuss the studio she founded in 2014, her aesthetic, and positioning Old Masters paintings within contemporary design.
Alice Casely-Hayford: Your first job was as an assistant to Victoria Fairfax, followed by a role at the creative agency Spring & Mercer. What were the key learnings that you took away from those experiences that informed your decisions when starting your own interior design business?
Sophie Ashby: I worked on some very special projects whilst with Victoria and I credit her with my understanding of colour and sense of proportion. She had a very impressive roster of clients and I got to travel the world with her, working in Boston, Switzerland, Sussex and London. She was an expert in treading that careful line between firmness and flexibility and made sure her studio provided the highest level of service.
I credit my time at Spring & Mercer as the period I started to really understand and discover my own interior style. I was still so young and inexperienced, and my bosses were very trusting and generous, allowing me to grow and develop through a lot of on-the-job learning.
Your interests lie in antiques, colour, contemporary world art, modernist furniture, and photography. How do Old Masters fit into your vision?
For me, it’s all about the mix. I like to juxtapose antiques with contemporary pieces to achieve true eclecticism. Old Masters paintings certainly have a place in our interiors, I love the idea of a deep, intense, strong Old Masters painting, hung about a contemporary acrylic console table with a leather or brass lamp on it. I collect beautiful things, fuse the raw with the refined and the expected with the surprising, to create a strong sense of home, history and soulfulness.
As far as the art market goes, Old Masters are a great place to start and you can pick up some reasonably priced paintings. With an interior, we often start with the art, sometimes literally taking an artwork and building an interior around it, and other times more figuratively using art as the start of a narrative journey.
How do you encourage clients to take risks to create a truly idiosyncratic space?
I would ask them to think about the places they’ve been to or seen on the pages of a magazine which made them feel good, sit up and take notice or stayed in their minds, but most of all I would ask them to describe the feeling that they want their home to evoke. Is it comfort, cosiness and warmth they describe or grandeur, drama and boldness? Very often my clients can’t necessarily describe the details of what they want but they know how to describe how they want it to feel and that’s a great place to start. It’s the description of these ideas that leads to the conceptual design.
You've said it is an emotional connection that draws you to certain pieces of art. Can you explain that process in picking works for different spaces?
Art has a vital place in every interior, most spaces feel naked without it. It’s important to buy art that reminds you of someone, a moment in time, makes you think and feel something that will take you somewhere and encourage you to reflect.
My view is that art is often the thing that lasts the longest, physically moves with you to every home and lasts much longer than a sofa or headboard. The art my parents bought over their lifetime which followed us around, hung in new spots with each move, making a new house feel like ‘home’. The familiarity of an artwork is powerful, more powerful than any piece of furniture.
What would be your dream commission?
There are so many dream clients who I am hoping will come knocking on our door one day but I think the one I fantasise about most is ‘The Collector’; someone who has an incredible art and furniture collection who wants us to start with that collection and design a beautiful, comfortable home around their Bacon/Keifer/Rembrandt/Brancusi!
Works from Sotheby’s Old Masters Evening Sale on 4 December and Day sale on 5 December will be exhibited in Tom Dixon’s store at The Coal Office at 2 Bagley Walk, London on 4 October – to coincide with Frieze Masters.
If you wish to enquire about the possibility of offering a work in one of Sotheby's Old Master Paintings sales, please click here.